Recent Islamist politics have turned the holy month of Muharram into a time of battle. Facing mounting violence, Karachi enters the Muslim year 1434 as a city under siege.
Image from Asianet-Pakistan/Shutterstock
By Rafia Zakaria
On the Muslim lunar calendar, November 16 of 2012 marks the beginning of the Muslim year 1434, and of the holy month of Muharram. During this prayerful month of mourning, escalations in violence are made even more tragic by their juxtaposition—the very name Muharram means fighting is forbidden.
To say that the city of Karachi has been tense during these last days of 1433 would be an understatement, but it is one that has been repeated by the headlines of the city papers with an alarming lack of irony. This is not empty fear bred by rhetoric: in the past week alone more than 55 people have been killed in sectarian violence. The dead in Karachi—Pakistan’s most populous city and its economic capital—include Shia religious scholars, political activists belonging to one or other of the city’s warring political parties, shopkeepers who failed to pay bribes to land mafias, and of course the random people caught in the cruel crossfire. Countless other victims are lying in various stages of expiration on stretchers inside or outside the city’s taxed emergency rooms. In one such ward, a man sat weeping outside the MRI scanning room—all three of his brothers had been shot—two had already died, the third was alive enough to need a scan. At least one of the 10 killed, on November 12 was himself a doctor, murdered in his clinic when assailants posed as patients and then instead of explaining their ailments presented him with a bullet in the head. He never made it to a hospital.
The total number of people murdered in Karachi since January stands at a mind-boggling 1,800. Not all of them are known to have been killed by the Taliban, but all the deaths add to the feeling that Karachi is under siege.
For years, the socially liberal party that controls Karachi, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), has been complaining about Taliban infiltration in the city. On November 2, 2012, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani wing of the Taliban movement that started in Afghanistan, declared war on the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. The two parties have been at loggerheads for a while, with the increasing incursion of millions of Pushtuns from the drone-deadened Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province altering the demographic balance of a city that has been controlled by the MQM since the end of an ethnic war in the mid-1990s. Arriving Pushtuns may well be fleeing the Taliban, but in declaring war on the MQM, the Tehreek-e-Taliban seeks to win them over and hence control a chunk of Pakistan’s largest city.
On November 5, 2012 the Supreme Court of Pakistan affirmed the MQM’s fears, agreeing that thousands of Taliban had infiltrated the city and that neither the city government nor the provincial or national governments were doing enough to protect Karachi’s inhabitants. The bodies have been falling ever since, their numbers rising from the one or two killed each day, to eight, then ten, then fourteen—the death toll in Karachi for the first half of November already stands at 150. The total number of people murdered in Karachi since January stands at a mind-boggling 1,800. Not all of them were Shia or are known to be killed by the Taliban, but all the deaths add to the feeling that Karachi is a city under siege. Last night, the night before the first day of Muharram, 1434, Pakistan’s Ministry of the Interior banned all motorcycles from the city’s streets, citing reports of terrorists using them in drive-by attacks. It is expected that all cell phone traffic will also be jammed (since explosive devices are used to detonate bombs). On the first day of the new year, this city of eighteen million will come to a standstill.
Taliban gunmen lined up the Shia passengers along the side of the bus and shot them all. They posted video footage of the mass murder the next day on YouTube.
This year, like the 1373 years since the Battle of Karbala in Iraq from whence the Shia-Sunni schism originates, Muharram will be will greeted not with celebration but with ritual mourning. During Muharram of the Muslim year 61, after a lengthy battle of succession over who would be the leader of the Muslims, the Caliph Yazid massacred all the members of the family of Ali. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan believe Shia Muslims to be heretics, and the month of Muharram, when hundreds of thousands of Shias come out in mourning processions on the streets of cities and towns all over Pakistan, is their favorite time to kill them. They have done it before in large-scale suicide bombings of mourning processions and Shia mosques. In a particularly dastardly attack this August, Taliban gunmen hijacked a bus and methodically checked each passenger’s identification. They lined up the Shia passengers along the side of the bus and shot them all. They posted video footage of the mass murder the next day on YouTube.
Karachi sits on the edge of the Arabian Sea, whose other end touches Iran and the Port of Bandar Abbas. In Iran thirty-two years ago, when the year being welcomed was 1403 (corresponding with 1979) , the dialectic of mourning and the Shia commemoration of the martyrs of Karbala echoed a different discourse in the Iranian Revolution. During the Muharram before the Ayatollah finally toppled the Shah’s regime, mourners on the streets of Tehran mixed the Shia rituals of mourning with their political reality. The Shah and the United States came to signify the evils of Yazid the cruel Caliph and his lust for power; within that appropriation of the rites of mourning was an identification with the victims, the descendants of Ali who in the Iran’s revolt-whetted imagination, became symbols of the ordinary becoming revolutionary. In this way, modern politics of state and anti-Westernism were wed to a historic and spiritual tradition.
Here in Karachi, thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, Muharram 1434 again marks an uprising. But this one’s direction is different: while the Iranian Revolution identified with Shia suffering, the Taliban seek Shia extermination, seeing it as part of the purification of the rest of Pakistan. They seek to create a concrete Sunni identity, well-defined against the nation’s chaos.
Some evidence of this change can be seen in the constricting limits of Pakistani identity, which is being reduced to being solely Sunni. It is perhaps similar acceptance by the Sunni majority in the country that explains the mass silent toleration of the attacks. More proof can be found in the recent religious edicts (fatwas) against Shia. These edicts, often distributed at Sunni mosques after Friday congregations in mosques in Karachi and other parts of Pakistan, have gradually narrowed the noose around Shias in Pakistan. Early edicts advocated the ostracism and exclusion of Shias as heretics; later edicts graduated to advocating their killing. The most recent fatwas prescribe not just the exclusion and ostracism of Shias as kafir (infidels), but also the killing of those Sunnis who doubt such edicts. Behind these edicts is an ideology that constructs unity by the fascist enforcement of sameness, so reminiscent of holocausts past.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper. She is a writer and PhD candidate in political philosophy. Her work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent, The Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, The Hindu, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.